South Africa: Fires Threaten Historic Estates

South Africa: Fires Threaten Historic Estates

24 February 2009

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South Africa — At least three historic wine estates in the Somerset West area, Vergelegen, Lourensford and Knorhoek, and an upmarket residential development near the town, were under threat from fierce fires on a front estimated to be 15km long, fire services personnel said yesterday.

Sebastian Martin, operations director of the City of Cape Town’s eastern region and the officer co-ordinating emergency fire services in the Somerset West area, said it was expected that the fire would rage for two or three more days before it was finally doused.

Apart from the wine estates, the Lala Panzi Lodge in the Wedderwill Estate, outside Somerset West, had also been threatened, and some residents had to be evacuated from their homes.

Neither the lodge, a timber structure, nor a number of expensive homes on the estate were damaged, Martin said.

However, large numbers of firefighters from CapeNature, local emergency units and farm workers from the affected farms were on hand.

The firefighters were patrolling the areas to ensure the fires did not cause damage to buildings.

The Western Cape provincial government has made available nearly R4m in emergency funding to assist in the fire-fighting effort, in which more than 60 vehicles and 300 firefighters have been involved in controlling the flames.

Reinforcement firefighters were brought in from Free State and Mpumalanga to assist.

Pierre Uys, the local government, environmental affairs and development planning MEC, said he had also provided R2,5m to bolster fire-fighting efforts in the Cederberg Nature Reserve, which was devastated by a runaway fire last week.

Uys blamed extremely hot weather in the province’s fire season for the number of destructive runaway veld fires that had to be brought under control, and said they had put additional strain on CapeNature’s resources. Uys said a further R1,7m had been made available to other local and district municipalities in their fire-fighting effort because the use of helicopters had made the effort expensive.

Uys said the Cederberg reserve was hit particularly hard, with the destruction of an office complex and provision stores at Algeria.

Computer equipment was needed to restore tourism, financial record-keeping and communications.

Uys said independent wildfire investigators would be appointed to determine the cause and origin of fires “as well as to evaluate whether the fire-fighting actions were adequate and appropriate — to improve responses to future occurrences”.

Heavy smoke was hanging over an area of more than 50km’, which left parts of Somerset West blanketed with ash.

The cloud of smog reduced visibility and grounded the aerial water bombardment by four Oryx helicopters called in to assist with operations.

Martin said he had asked the two helicopters to stand down until first light today before resuming water bombardment of the fires raging over a large area of natural vegetation in the mountains between Somerset West and Stellenbosch.

Fires had also moved up along the ridge of the Hottentots Holland mountains, and were threatening communication equipment on top of the mountain, which Martin said was a “strategic” point that had to be protected.

He said a sawmill on Lourensford had also been threatened.

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